In "Lost in Yonkers," Neil Simon -- who famously chronicled the comic misadventures of young marrieds, middle-aged divorced men and aspiring comedy writers -- achieves that near-perfect balance of humor and pathos. The laughs are hearty and the emotion is genuine in this 1991 Pulitzer Prize-winning dramedy about two brothers sent by their widowed father to live with their steely, inaccessible grandmother.
Many consider it Simon's best work. Northlight Theatre's lovely, heartfelt revival makes it clear why.
"Lost in Yonkers"★ ★ ★ ½
Location: Northlight Theatre, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie, (847) 673-6300 or northlight.org
Showtimes: 1 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturday, 2:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday through June 8. No 7:30 p.m. shows May 20, 27 and 28. No 1 p.m. show May 21. No 7 p.m. show May 18 and June 8
Running time: About two hours, 30 minutes with intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot
Rating: For most audiences
Deftly staged by former Northlight education director Devon de Mayo (whose directing suggests a real understanding of Simon's sensibility), the wonderfully satisfying revival boasts an impressive cast. In addition to talented young Northlight newcomers Alistair Sewell, Sebastian W. Weigman and Linsey Page Morton, it includes Timothy Edward Kane and Ann Whitney, one of the Chicago area's grandest grande dames, who co-stars as the matriarch of this troubled family.
The action unfolds in 1942, in a neat-as-a-pin Brooklyn apartment (designed by Grant Sabin with no doily out of place), where uncomfortably attired, increasingly anxious brothers -- 15-year-old Jay (Sewell, an ideal straight man) and 13-year-old Arty (Weigman, an equally ideal comedian) -- await their fate.
Nearly destitute as a result of his late wife's illness, the boys' father Eddie (Kane, in an aching portrayal of a grieving husband determined to do right by his sons) has returned home to ask his mother (an imposing turn by the stately Whitney) to look after the boys so he can take a lucrative job as a traveling scrap metal salesman.
Whitney's remote, embittered Grandma Kurnitz is the quintessential Iron Lady whose traumatic childhood informs her approach to child-raising. She believes withholding affection from children teaches them the strength and self-reliance necessary for their survival. However, she has seriously damaged them in the process. Oldest daughter Gert (a funny, poignant cameo from Anne Fogarty) is made so fearful by her mother she can barely speak. The principled Eddie is similarly intimidated. Sharp-dressed, fast-talking son Louie (a worldly, wary Erik Hellman) is a bag man for the mob.
Lastly there's youngest daughter Bella, played by Morton whose exquisite, achingly emotional performance deserves to be recognized come award season. Bella is a 35-year-old woman with the mind of a child, longing for affection and eager to experience life apart from her mama, whose second-act rebellion changes forever this family's dynamic.
Reluctantly, Grandma takes in the boys, whose stay in Yonkers is made bearable by sweet Bella as she lavishes on them the kind of love she never received.
De Mayo's cast is nothing short of superb. Shifting effortlessly (and credibly) between the comedic and the tragic, their performances are moving and fully realized.
Sewell and Weigman display a flair for timing beyond their years. Whitney, whose presence we dread but whose motives we understand (even if we don't agree with them) is unwavering in her stoicism -- except at the end, when the wily Whitney confirms with a fleeting Mona Lisa smile what we suspected all along.
Ultimately, however, it's Morton -- whose heartfelt, vulnerable performance anchors this production -- who we cannot forget.